The participation of transnational actors in global policymaking is increasingly seen as a means to democratize global governance. Drawing on alternative theories of democracy and existing empirical evidence, we assess the promises and pitfalls of this vision. We explore how the structuring and operation of international institutions, public-private partnerships, and transnational actors themselves may facilitate expanded participation and enhanced accountability in global governance. We find considerable support for an optimistic verdict on the democratizing potential of transnational actor involvement, but also identify hurdles in democratic theory and the practice of global governance that motivate a more cautious outlook. In conclusion, we call for research that explores the conditions for democracy in global governance through a combination of normative political theory and positive empirical research. KEYWORDS: global governance, democracy, transnational actors, accountability, participation.
THE GROWTH OF GOVERNANCE BEYOND THE NATION-STATE IS ONE OF THE most distinct political developments of the past half-century. Whereas the early postwar period witnessed the establishment of a set of major international institutions, more recent developments include the emergence and spread of public-private partnerships, as well as entirely private governance arrangements. Traditionally, the rationale of global governance arrangements, and their principal source of legitimacy, has been their capacity to address problems and generate benefits for states and societies. Yet, in recent years, international institutions and other governance arrangements have increasingly been challenged on normative grounds--and have been found to suffer from democratic deficits. (1)
The purpose of this article is to address the potential role of transnational actors in the process of democratizing global governance. We use this term to denote the broad range of private actors that organize and operate across state borders, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy networks, social movements, party associations, philanthropic foundations, and transnational corporations (TNCs). (2) Of particular interest are global civil society actors, whose participation in policymaking increasingly is seen as holding the promise of a democratization of global governance. (3) Transferring models of democracy originally developed for the national context, and developing new models of democracy tailored for the international level, democracy theorists have advanced blueprints for how global governance arrangements may be reformed to integrate transnational actors and thus meet the standards of democratic decisionmaking.
In this article, we assess the promises and pitfalls of this vision, drawing on diverse strands of theoretical and empirical research. Departing from theories of representative, participatory, and deliberative democracy, we identify how the involvement of transnational actors may serve to democratize global governance, by way of expanding participation and strengthening accountability. But, in addition, we address the problems and limits of this vision--in principle and as revealed by existing evidence. We structure this analysis in three parts, each exploring a central component of global governance: the design of international institutions, the nature of public-private partnerships, and the qualities of participating transnational actors.
International institutions and public-private partnerships have been selected because they constitute two prominent institutional forms in global governance--one traditional and established, one recent and increasingly common, both frequently criticized on democratic grounds. In relation to these institutional forms, we discuss the extent to which transnational actor involvement may enhance democracy by improving accountability and participation. Yet, when analyzing the potential of transnational actors to contribute to a democratization of global governance, it is essential to examine the democratic credentials of these very actors as well. Hence, we have selected as our third theme the extent to which transnational actors themselves, in their organization and activities, live up to standards of inclusive participation and clear mechanisms of accountability.
In all three areas, we find considerable support for an optimistic verdict on the democratizing potential of greater transnational actor involvement. Most notably, bringing on board NGOs, social movements, and advocacy networks can expand participation in global governance, not only because it broadens the range of actors involved in international policymaking and the provision of public goods, but also because these actors by nature tend to allow for more direct citizen participation. In addition, transnational actor involvement can strengthen accountability in global governance by supplementing existing mechanisms of internal accountability within institutions and organizations with new mechanisms of external accountability through stakeholders and citizens.
However, we also identify a set of nonnegligible concerns and obstacles that motivate a considerably more cautious or even pessimistic outlook. The patterns of participation in international institutions, public-private partnerships, and transnational organizations themselves tend to be unbalanced, compromising the potential of expanded involvement. Moreover, external accountability is limited as a supplement to or substitute for internal accountability, because it is often difficult to distinguish who the stakeholders are and how they can hold actors responsible for their decisions.
The concluding message of this article is that future research on democracy and global governance would be best served by combining normative political theory and positive empirical research. What is needed are not more grandiose blueprints for global democracy or more case studies of transnational activity, but comparative empirical assessments of the conditions under which transnational actors may live up to the promises and avoid the pitfalls as forces for democratic global governance.
The presentation proceeds in five parts. The next section briefly introduces the three models of democracy that privilege alternative mechanisms for the realization of democracy. The subsequent three sections offer analyses of the extent to which international institutions, public-private partnerships, and transnational actors themselves are structured and operate in ways that facilitate participation and accountability in global governance. We conclude by outlining an agenda for future research on transnational actors and the conditions for democracy in global governance.
Models of Democracy and Key Democratic Values
In order to analyze the democratic promises and pitfalls of transnational actor participation, we need criteria that are well anchored in established theories and conceptions of democracy. Yet normative democratic theory is not a unified approach but consists of several different strands of theory, often described as alternative models of democracy. One common distinction in the literature is the trichotomy of representative democracy, participatory democracy, and deliberative democracy. (4) We very briefly outline the main characteristics of these three models and highlight the varying emphasis in these models on participation and accountability as central democratic values.
The model of representative democracy emphasizes the opportunity for citizens to choose between competing political elites with alternative political agendas, and to hold decisionmakers accountable for their actions. (5) The electoral contest is the central mechanism through which citizens make political choices and hold their leaders accountable. When applied to the international level, the model of representative democracy translates into calls for the establishment of majoritarian institutions based on electoral contest, as well as the strengthening of transnational party associations.
The model of participatory democracy stresses direct citizen participation as a prerequisite for a proper democracy. (6) According to the ideals of this model, it is highly unsatisfactory if citizens are reduced to being only voters whereas political elites control actual decisionmaking. Instead, citizens must be brought back into the political process itself. Compared to those favoring representative democracy, participatory democrats also tend to be more concerned about avoiding exclusion and marginalization based on, for instance, gender, ethnicity, and class. This results in a focus on power structures, as well as institutional mechanisms of direct democracy. When developed in the context of global governance, this perspective translates into proposals for transnational referenda, citizen initiatives, judicial access for individuals, and broad civil society participation, including previously marginalized groups. (7)
The model of deliberative democracy emphasizes deliberation among citizens or their representatives as the mode for realizing democracy. (8) Criticizing other theories of democracy for paying too much attention to the aggregation of preferences, proponents of this model argue that democratically legitimate decisions best are achieved through an informed public debate. Via the joint exploration of arguments and …